The Gray Man review: good or just expensive?

Ryan Gosling in The Gray Man
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The team behind Avengers: Endgame reunite for The Gray Man – and bring their talent for big budget action and witticisms with them.

A friend of mine has a mantra he often uses when referring to high-gloss movies and TV born of the current streaming boom: is this good, or is it just expensive?

I thought about that question a lot during the screening of new Netflix thriller The Gray Man. It’s the streaming giant’s most expensive movie to date at an estimated $200m budget, loosely adapted from a 2009 novel which has since spawned multiple sequels. Franchise ahoy!

Netflix has brought out the big guns on both sides of the camera here. The Russo brothers are in the director’s chair, working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Yep, that’s the team behind Avengers: Endgame – at one point the highest-grossing movie ever made – not to mention several other Marvel behemoths. These guys know blockbusters.

And this is definitely one of those, with the budget right up there on the screen. Ryan Gosling leads the cast as a highly-trained assassin who, after being yanked out of prison decades earlier by a shady CIA fella (Billy Bob Thornton), has become one of the agency’s most valuable assets. But when a botched mission leaves him in possession of sensitive information about duplicitous boss Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), he’s marked for elimination at the hands of the psychotic, unpleasant, terrifying – and that’s just his moustache – private contractor Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans).

If that sounds simple, it absolutely is. It’s essentially a loose morsel of a generic espionage plot, used as scaffolding on which to hang a series of increasingly bombastic and extravagant set pieces.

But for the most part, that’s no bad thing. This isn’t a head-scrambling espionage tale or a musing on the ethics of taking people at their lowest ebb and converting them into mindless killing machines. It’s a fast-paced, quippy thriller that barely slows down for a second to smell the muzzle smoke or consider whether any of these people might have palpable human emotions behind their trigger fingers.

At the centre of it all is Gosling, running, jumping and shooting his way through almost every frame with an enjoyable combination of rugged action man badassery and the sort of comedic energy he brought to the screen to such great effect in The Nice Guys. He’s supported well by Ana de Armas as a CIA colleague working to keep him alive, shining in the action sequences and given far more to do here than she was in her few scenes alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond in No Time To Die. It makes that movie’s decision to sideline her look even stranger.

But the headlines may well go to Evans. His character in Knives Out was slimy and capable of awful things, but that’s got nothing on Lloyd, described early on as a “sociopath” with “a higher kill count than the whole of Mossad.” Evans clearly has a great time hamming up the villainy, tearing with aplomb into the sort of Markus and McFeely lines his Captain America often had to sit out. Certainly, Steve Rogers would never state with icy relish that “if you wanna make an omelette, you’ve gotta kill some people.” The character is decidedly one-note, but Evans gives enough brio to that single dimension that he never gets boring.

The characters mostly work then, but it’s narratively where problems begin. The Gray Man is a globe-trotting spy adventure in the Bond mould, often switching between nations and cities at a whiplash-inducing speed. There’s presumably an extended cut of the movie which just features the characters shuffling forlornly through endless passport control checkpoints and watching other, less pricey Netflix movies on the screens in their aeroplane seats. It’s hard to keep track of the action at times, particularly when characters are supposed to be engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase across national borders.

And the action sequences, too, tend towards the exhausting. The Russos are in a constant arms race to one-up the previous scene, whether it’s with more vehicles, more pyrotechnics or more headache-inducing use of CGI-assisted camera gymnastics. Even Baz Luhrmann would probably suggest they stay still for a few moments.

While the best sequences – some tram gunplay and a climactic hedge maze fistfight – really sing, there’s an element of diminishing returns to some of the more generic onslaughts of machine gun fire and vehicular mayhem. It’s easy in these moments for attention to drift, especially with so little character-based heft to ground proceedings. The involvement of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood breakout star Julia Butters as Thornton’s niece comes to almost nothing and never provides the emotional pivot point it ought to create.

At its best, The Gray Man shows why the Russos were handed the keys to the biggest franchise in modern Hollywood. The film knows its mission objectives and has the clinical, vicious skills required to meet them, but occasionally over-stretches itself by virtue of its attempts to be as big and bombastic as possible.

Netflix won’t regret spending its cash on this though. It’s an occasionally excellent thriller with more than enough movie star-propelled action mayhem to keep audiences happy. Anyone looking for something with heart alongside the headshots will leave disappointed, but for bruising carnage and a smattering of mostly-quite-funny witticisms, there’s plenty of colour to be found amid The Gray Man. It might be good, or it might just be expensive – but it’s a solid night at the movies either way.

The Gray Man is out now in cinemas and streaming on Netflix from 22nd July.

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